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Budget shortfall may cut proposed Queens schools

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Queens, which has the city’s most crowded classrooms, is in danger of losing six schools promised by the Board of Education due to a $1.5 billion shortfall in the school construction capital budget.

In the second year of its five-year school construction plan, the Board of Ed has gone over its $7 billion budget, jeopardizing some planned construction projects designed to help alleviate massive overcrowding throughout the city.

“The Board was informed last week by the Division of School Facilities that if all the projects in the capital plan were to move forward, there would be a shortfall of $1.5 billion,” said Terri Thomson, the Queens member on the Board of Ed. “The shortfall comes from high construction costs resulting from New York City’s real estate boom.”

She said Queens is scheduled to lose two schools each in District 24 and District 30 and two high schools. The cuts would take place in western Queens, she said, because there are no sites available for the proposed schools — “only lots of need.”

District 24, stretching from Maspeth to Middle Village and from Ridgewood to Glendale, and District 30, which extends from Woodside to Astoria and from Long Island City to Sunnyside, are the most crowded in the borough and were to get the most seats, she said.

“No decisions have been made. All projects under way will move forward,” Thomson said. “We certainly have reason to be concerned, our needs are extraordinary.”

The Board of Ed failed to return repeated phone calls for comment over a two-day period.

Queens has a shortfall of 26,000 seats and most school districts are operating at more than 100 percent of capacity. The borough’s school boards and borough president have been scrambling to find suitable construction sites.

Queens was scheduled to receive the lion’s share of the construction dollars in the original capital plan, or about 40 percent of the money even though the borough had 62 percent of the need citywide.

The city’s original capital plan called for the construction of 23 new schools and one addition in Queens, which would have added 21,000 seats.

“The real question is how do we get out of this mess,” said Shulman. “We cannot stop building these schools, but the future scenario has not yet been adopted.”

Shulman is demanding that the city and Board of Ed conduct an in-depth audit, which breaks down capital budget expenditures in each of the boroughs. The borough president wants to know exactly where all the money was spent.

“This is a shock — $1.5 billion of a $7 billion plan,” said Dan Andrews, a spokesman for the borough president. “It is incredible. We are going to do some talking to find out what happened.”

He said $27 million was spent in flood prevention and there was a severe overrun in electrical costs. The borough president believes Queens was charged for construction costs on school projects in the other boroughs, he said.

Andrews said the final scenario has not been determined and the Board of Ed must decide on its priorities over the next few months.

“My reaction is amazement that they could miscalculate by hundreds of millions of dollars,” said Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who again called for the abolishment of the Board of Ed.

Political observers have said Queens might stand to lose the most of any borough as punishment for Thomson, the Queens Board of Ed appointee, bucking the mayor and borough president by voting against Ninfa Segarra to replace the former board president, William Thompson. Thompson resigned earlier this year to concentrate on his candidacy for city comptroller and Segarra was elected president.

“I can think of no more pressing issue facing New York City than school construction,” said Speaker Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), who has called for an investigation into the shortfall.

“We have schools that are so overcrowded that closets and bathrooms have been converted into classrooms,” Vallone said. “New York City is short 69,000 seats in our schools ... more than all of the students in Albany, Rochester and Syracuse combined.”

Thomson said there are many different scenarios for what the Board of Ed could do over the next few months to make up the budget shortfall.

A public hearing has been set to discuss the budget problems on July 10 at PS 19 at 99th Street and Roosevelt Avenue in Corona.

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

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